I had resisted reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius for a long time. The reasons for which aren’t entirely clear to me. Perhaps it was my perception that it would be cold, indifferent or dispassionate, like the word stoic implies.

Still other people, I know and respect, swear by it. Its sales soared as people searched for meaning during the pandemic.

Despite it being one of the best selling philosophy books of all time, it was never meant for public consumption. It was simply his journal that long after he had died found its way into the public domain. Throughout  its pages,  the “You’ he is speaking to is himself.

Even as I began to read it, I resisted it. A recurring theme is the acceptance of death as a natural and inevitable event in life that we will all at one point experience.  Generally speaking, I do not like to think about mortality, either my own or those I love. It is crushing to me.

Yet Aurelius makes the case that only by doing so can we be inspired to live a good life and discard those things that don’t contribute to one.

At one point, he writes, “Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself, “Am I’m afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?”

At another point, he says to “Be indifferent to all that does not make a difference.”  This serves as a reminder of how much in our life is a waste of our time and energy.  He implores himself saying, “You can discard most of the junk that clutters your mind – things that exist only there – and clear space for yourself.”

The junk of which he refers to are often our reactions to or perceptions of the acts of others. Concepts like harm and anxiety are brought upon ourselves, (“Choose not to be harmed and you will not be harmed.”)

Now as Emperor of the Roman Empire, it was undoubtedly easier for him to believe this than someone significantly less privileged. But that doesn’t dismiss the point entirely. How much of the mental pain we feel is because others don’t act the way we would like? How often do we torture ourselves because someone doesn’t respond to our own actions in a way in which we believe we deserve?

Aurelius is brutally honest about others, writing, “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.” They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.” Acknowledging this mean their actions do not need to impact us as they often do.  Instead he writes, “No one can implicate me in their ugliness.”

Again, it is easier said than done to not let the actions of others affect us. But in reality if we can’t control them then why should we allow them to harm us?

What is the alternative to all this?

Focus on your own actions. Or as when he asks, “And your profession?” The reply is simply “Goodness.” To keep reminding ourselves that we are all connected, if you put more good out into the world, your world will be “more good.”

If the musings of a privileged white guy from almost 2,000 years ago aren’t your cup of tea, I understand. But the underpinnings of stoicism can be seen in many other places.

For example, Noah Cyrus’s song, “The End of Everything” includes the lyrics:

“Everyone you love is gonna die. So don’t you let the moment pass you by. And man, there really ain’t no sadder thing. There really ain’t no sweeter thing.”

Or In Frozen 2, Anna saves the day only when she is reminded that the path to doing so is simply “to do the next right thing.”

Stoicism isn’t nihilism, it doesn’t think the world is meaningless or cruel. It isn’t cold, indifferent, or dispassionate either. It is undoubtedly hard though. as is being honest with ourselves – which stoicism requires.

Here is to focusing on the good we can do.

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